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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-01-6)

In earlier columns (Nos 12 and 13) we discussed the feebleness of contemporary invective and language in general. The trend continues inexorably, as one example will show:

South Africa has recently undergone a horrific wave of sexual assaults and murders involving small children, some of them no more than babies. It has produced a corresponding surge of anger and disgust in the population at large. In one case at least, this found expression in a protest march outside a court where a relevant case was being heard. One participant was asked for the reason for the march. She said (in a news broadcast), “It’s because we’re fed up.” Now that’s fighting talk.

In South Africa, with its 11 official languages, I suppose it’s hardly surprising that any one of them should get mangled by accident. But there are times when feebleness of expression is perceived as highly desirable. It is said that American presidential speechwriters deliberately cultivate a style that makes for sonorous utterance without any real content. That way, the president cannot later be held accountable for unfulfilled campaign promises – if you read his speech carefully, you will find that he didn’t make any.

A feature of modern Americans is their endemic litigiousness: they love suing each other. Doctors are particularly vulnerable to “malpractice suits”. This national trait seems to reveal a widespread immaturity in the American public which embraces the childish belief that anything that goes wrong must be somebody’s fault. In turn, manufacturers of all kinds of goods try to protect themselves against prosecution with printed disclaimers on their products: famously, the ladders that come with a warning that you may get hurt if you fall off one, and the laundry iron whose label advises you not to iron clothes while you are wearing them.

Labels are fine examples of words that promise nothing. I have a tube of toothpaste in front of me that proclaims “Helps remove plaque to control tartar.” You will notice that it doesn’t remove plaque, it only helps to do so. It doesn’t remove tartar, it only controls it. The contents are said to offer “maximum cavity protection.” (Not total, just maximum.) And pray tell me who, besides Osama bin Laden, wants to protect cavities anyway?

Perhaps the best example of a label that says nothing at some length is on an aerosol can of something called “C*******y Mist”, which I also have before me. (The hidden word is the name of a French town north of Paris but it also the name of a farm in Natal where the product originates.) The label announces that the product “refreshes, tones, moisturises & hydrates”. It is “an essential part of daily skin care”, and you are advised to “Gently spray the face, start at the neck and move slowly upwards.” (Levitation, anybody?) At this point the writer became desperate and translated the whole lot into French (always a good bet with cosmetics), and pretty well filled the remaining space.

And the product inside the can? Its chemical symbol is thoughtfully provided: yes, you’ve got it – H2O, or water. Not one word of the label is untrue and I applaud a genuine master of the craft of label-writing.

This column, alas, did not make the Christmas deadline. However, I wish all readers a Happy New Year and I hope you received all you could wish for from Santa and all his subordinate Clauses.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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